Video conferencing can convey far more information than an audio call ever could, by adding the ability to see others in the call and take in their visual cues. Add in the fact that you can share content across a video call, so that others can see it in their own environment, and video conferencing becomes a power tool of communication. As traditional conference rooms are squeezed out of corporate spaces in favor of the “Huddle Room,” video calling simply needs to be made more accessible to a larger number of people. Read that word “accessible” in a dollars-and-sense fashion, and it becomes the word “affordable.”
Another very important question when deploying video conferencing is, “just who are you going to be calling?” If your new VTC unit can’t call your important clients because they aren’t using compatible technologies, just how useful is that going to be for your company, or theirs? The solution may be a cross-platform cloud subscription.
Hard Codec Vs. Soft Codec for Video Conferencing
Once you decide to employ a video conferencing system, a big decision to be made is whether to use a system requiring a Hard Codec or a Soft Codec.
What exactly is a Codec?
The term “codec” is the shortened form of “coder-decoder.” It is a hardware or software device that encodes and decodes a data stream. For video conferencing, the codec can be a specially designed hardware appliance that has basically no other function than to deliver a high-quality video conferencing experience, which it does very well. Or, the codec might be based on a more general-purpose computer.
For many years, hardware codecs have been used as standards-based (H.323 protocol, and now SIP) endpoints in conference room systems to make video calls, and had even expanded to personal desktop systems. These “hard” codecs have always been fairly expensive systems that rely on very costly back-end infrastructure servers to make them work to their potential. Features may include: directories, multi-call bridging, network management, etc. These management systems almost always work best, and are more feature-rich, with their native brand of video codec. Of course, you don’t need all the fancy back-end to make video calls, but you don’t get a lot of bells and whistles without it.
Now let’s be fair to the Hardware Codec. The video conferencing hardware codec has only one purpose, and that’s to make a stellar video call, which they just about all do superbly. It’s just that once you are done with the video call, there’s not much else you can with that expensive hardware but put it into sleep mode to conserve power. (They do typically get HOT because of all of those billions of electrons zooming around inside to make that lovely video call.) Also, if you are integrating a training room or a boardroom environment with multiple microphones and cameras, the purpose-built hardware codec can likely do a far better job, and likely more reliably, than a soft codec.
The term “soft codec” has come into use far more commonly these days as a (mostly) inexpensive alternative to hardware codecs. A soft codec is a unit based on hardware that is not specifically designed to do only one function. These days, video conferencing soft codecs are usually based on small-form-factor PC’s that might be running Microsoft Windows as an operating system. (Some are Linux based, or one of the open-source Linux derivatives.)
There are many reasons for the popularity of soft codecs, with low cost being one of the most prevalent. Probably one of the next best reasons to choose a soft codec is because it is compatible with the video conferencing platform of choice that the caller needs, for example, Skype for Business.
Because the soft codec may be Windows-based, it can be used for other purposes such as web browsing, or making calls to others using a variety of conferencing software clients. There is a catch to using this multipurpose device. Audio or video settings might be changed, when using it as a browsing PC, for example. If those settings are not returned to their original state the next user won’t be able to easily launch their video call without troubleshooting. This is often an easy fix, but in cases where it isn’t, meetings may be canceled by frustrated operators. This reason alone is why many business users shy away from soft codecs for conference room use.
As Bandwidth Capacity Increases, So Does the Use of Cloud-Based Video Conferencing Solutions
Another great reason for the indirect popularity of soft codecs is the infamous “Cloud.” Around the globe, businesses have been upgrading their Internet access speeds over the last few years. This has led to many cloud-based solutions from the largest video conferencing suppliers to many new startups. Video conferencing is, in general, very bandwidth-hungry.
These cloud video services are typically subscription based and offer the ability to join a Virtual Meeting Room (VMR), with many other participants. In fact, most services will allow you to join up to 50 or more participants. This is far more than the multi-call capabilities of any hardware codec. If you are the “owner” of the VMR, you can set access levels to limit who can join, either with open entry or secured with a meeting password. In most cases, you can even record your meetings for later review or sharing with others. Also, most of the cloud conferencing offerings support the “Legacy” or Standards-based hardware video conferencing codecs that we’ve come to love in our conference rooms, without the need to own, and support, tens of thousands of dollars of infrastructure hardware.
We live in a connected age where everybody, including Grandma and Grandpa, are using their smartphones, tablets and PC’s to communicate with one another. Businesses want to connect with other businesses, and their employees want to connect with each other “affordably.” The Soft Codec is typically less expensive to implement and own. But it hasn’t replaced the Hardware Codec….yet.